BOSTON (State House News Service) — With many college students now learning remotely off-campus or while back living with their families, refunding the room and board payments for those students while they're away is going to be a "huge issue," according to the House chair of the Higher Education Committee.
But, Rep. Jeffrey Roy said, it's not one where there's necessarily an across-the-board solution.
The new online learning surge is one of the cascading effects flowing from the coronavirus pandemic, and it's being driven by the fact that thousand of students were abruptly sent packing from campuses mid-semester.
Massachusetts is home to more than 100 colleges and universities, including the state's 15 community colleges, which do not have on-campus housing, nine public universities and the five-campus University of Massachusetts system.
Dorm and meal payments are unique to each school, and campus officials will need to consider the needs of their student populations as well as their own budgetary dynamics as they make unprecedented decisions around whether and how to reimburse room and board for off-campus time.
"Thankfully the community colleges do not have any people living there, so this is not an issue that they have to deal with, so that leaves us with 14 state universities and the UMass system," Roy said in a phone interview. "I know that they are working diligently for a plan to come up to address it, and I would say we have a little more control over what they do. The private institutions, my hope is that they are going to make students whole -- that's my desired outcome, reimburse them for what services they did not receive."
Many campuses across the Bay State are now in full remote-learning mode, with residence halls either closed or planning to close, with exceptions in some cases for students unable to go home.
Some schools, like Bridgewater State University, are closing their dorms through the end of the semester, while others plan to reopen after a few weeks -- Merrimack College in North Andover is aiming to reopen its dorms on Monday, April 13.
Many campuses are still figuring out exactly how to handle crediting students for room and board expenses.
Attorney General Maura Healey's office is closely monitoring the situation, a spokeswoman said, and encourages students and parents to file a consumer complaint online if they have any issues.
Healey's office has also contacted the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities about the issue and encourages students to reach out to their individual schools, according to a Healey aide.
The UMass system is working out how to adjust student accounts and is "fully focused on the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff and helping our students transition to remote learning so they can successfully complete their semester," a spokesman said.
"Room and meal plan accounts will be adjusted and will take into consideration financial aid guidelines," John Hoey, executive director for communications, said in a statement to the News Service. "We are working through the process in coordination with UMass campuses. Additional information on account adjustments will be forthcoming."
The state Department of Higher Education is working with the state's public campuses to help them address the issue, an official there said, but because every institution has its own contractual terms with its students, circumstances vary from school to school.
At Framingham State University, officials told families they "plan to begin issuing prorated adjustments or credits to student accounts by mid-April," and are awaiting U.S. Department of Education guidance on any potential impacts from the public health crisis on federal financial aid and loans. Room, meal and parking charges will be adjusted.
Roy, a Franklin Democrat, said he's been thinking about the refund issue and communicating with Speaker Robert DeLeo about it.
"I think the colleges and universities were ahead of the curve in getting their students to pack up and leave," Roy said. "I'm happy they did that, and this question of refunds and reimbursements is one of those issues that we can deal with tomorrow. It's not an immediate issue, but getting kids and students in safe locations was the priority."
He said he hopes the schools have insurance that would cover lost revenue from room and meals payments and that he'd "certainly be receptive" to legislation to help schools be reimbursed.
"I can almost guarantee that there will be a battle with the insurance companies claiming they do not cover these types of activities or events, so they may be seeking some legislative assistance in that area," Roy said.
Some private colleges have already announced plans for room and board refunds or credits. Clark University in Worcester is giving students the choice between a refund or credit for their prorated room and board charges; Boston's Emerson College is refunding graduating students and applying credits to the accounts of continuing students so they can use them for future charges; and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley plans to post, by Friday, a $3,450 credit to the accounts of students in campus housing who moved off-campus by March 20.
Roy said room and board charges make up significant portions of campus budgets -- at Smith College in Northampton, where the financial services office is determining a process for prorated refunds, Roy said room and board accounts for 16.5 percent of the budget. At Amherst College, he said, it's 9 percent.
He said policymakers "have to be mindful of the financial stress" this situation will put on some schools.
Last year, as lawmakers passed legislation aimed at protecting students and faculty against sudden college closures, state officials said 18 private colleges and universities in Massachusetts have closed or merged over the past five years.
"The other thing that concerns me in this arena is that there are institutions that are not on firm financial footing before this mess, and this could be for some of them, the straw that breaks the camel's back," Roy said.
On Monday, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, and U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, James McGovern, Stephen Lynch, Joseph Kennedy III, Katherine Clark, Lori Trahan, Seth Moulton and Bill Keating wrote to Congressional leadership, urging them to prioritize support for colleges, universities and their students in an upcoming COVID-19 stimulus package.
"As a result of COVID-19, colleges and universities in Massachusetts face significant losses in revenue and face new, unexpected costs," they wrote. "These institutions rely on tuition; an anticipated decline in international and domestic enrollment would be devastating. The Massachusetts higher education community needs timely stop-gap funding to continue operations, employment, teaching, and research. They also need resources to ensure that students do not face increases in costs, since the countryâ€™s student debt crisis is likely to be exacerbated by this public health emergency."
By Katie Lannan, State House News Service